Not Your Average Phenomenon: Recapping the 2019 Women’s World Cup

Not Your Average Phenomenon: Recapping the 2019 Women’s World Cup

It was unstoppably, delightfully inescapable.

At dinner with friends on Saturday who aren’t even soccer fans, the plan for Sunday morning was assumed — they were going to a bar to watch the game.

We passed a local burger joint, and the sign welcomed all to come early – ahead of the usual Sunday start of business – for one reason.

“Come Watch The Game!”

It’s hard for fans of men’s sports alone to fully appreciate how delightfully sweet and strange it is when a women’s sporting event takes center stage the way Sunday’s 2-0 victory by the United States over the Netherlands to capture the 2019 World Cup title did.

It’s just another celebration, no different than when an Olympian like Michael Phelps captures the imagination of the world for two weeks, or the Super Bowl every year, or the latest Final Four Cinderella.

But no: the 2019 World Cup was different.

We watched not at a bar, but at home, as a family, the heroes on the screen now known to one and all. As Megan Rapinoe scored the opening goal and reprised her statue pose, letting herself stand and be admired, the young women in my house got to see a stadium of 57,000 people (plus cutaways to thousands of others all over the world) doing it along with her.

With more poise and sense of the moment than anyone has any right to expect, Rapinoe snapped a scoreless tie against a Dutch team every bit up to the task of playing its best, but simply unable to stay with an American team that has a case for the best in the history of the sport.

Only later would the cruel four-year cycle math set in, with the uneasy realization that at 34, Rapinoe is the oldest to score in a World Cup final, and that precious few people even play soccer professionally, let alone at Rapinoe’s level, at 38.

Still, the future isn’t bleak for the U.S. I’ve written about Rose Lavelle as the future of the USWNT in so many different iterations over the years that it occurred to me during her game-clinching goal: She’s no longer the future. She was the here-and-now game-changer, the one who finished off a World Cup final. There’s no bigger event off in the distance than that. The future is here. It looks like this:

About a half hour later, the final whistle marked the happy ending of so many American stories (even as everyone appreciated the greatness of Sari Van Veendendaal, the Dutch goalkeeper who kept the score reasonable). As the confetti fell, all around the country people who have struggled to figure out where patriotism exists in their lives here in 2019 could embrace it, could see a version of the country they recognized, something beautiful and individualistic and unified and so fundamentally American in the best ways possible.

We watched Jess McDonald, who worked for years and battled injuries just to keep her professional soccer career going despite a well-known pay imbalance, get showered with confetti by her son Jeremiah on the field in Lyon.

And so the American soccer machine continues on, and so does the new normal of victory and universal acclaim. What we have come to award the Super Bowl champions, what’s handed to successful male athletes but only reluctantly given to women, and always with caveats (Are they celebrating too much? Are they winning by too many goals?), now belongs to the USWNT. After consecutive World Cup victories, it’s hard to imagine, even as the rest of the women’s soccer world keeps improving and taking aim at the United States, that anybody will knock them from their pedestal.

Wednesday in New York, I’ll get to watch these 23 women roll through the streets of New York. Nobody will question whether they’re parading properly. Nobody will wonder what all the noise is about. Everybody knows the USWNT.

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